July 27, 2017

Are farmers going to run out of water?

This is one of a series of six talks by Edward Goldsmith, broadcast on the World Business Report programme of the BBC World Service, 15-19 December 2003.

See Related Articles on the right for others in the series.


The world is facing a very serious water crisis. Already about one billion people are short of water and the number is set to increase very drastically, especially as a result of climate change. Why is this occurring?

Well, first of all water consumption is increasing drastically – doubling every 20 years – 70 percent of the water extracted is used for agriculture, 20 percent for industry, and 10 percent for domestic use. In the case of agriculture one reason is that we are growing more and more water-intensive crops and rearing more and more livestock, which also requires more water.

Much of agricultural produce rather than being designed to provide local people with traditional staple crops is designed for export – such crops as sugar-cane, which is ten times more water intensive than say wheat. In the state of Maharashtra in India sugar-cane covers a mere 3 percent of the cultivated land yet uses up some 80 percent of all the irrigated water. Eucalyptus is also very water-intensive, while to produce a pound of beef requires some 40,000 litres of water, as opposed to 500 – 1,000 litres to produce a pound of maize.

Also, the ‘advanced’ technology for extracting water from aquifers makes it possible to extract even more water than necessary and more use is made of it. Thus millions of wells have been drilled in developing countries – powered by highly effective diesel and electricity powered pumps – rather than by the traditional bullock and water pullies. This has led to water-emphasis – with pumping way beyond the recharge capacity of the underlying aquifers.

The result in India is more than 200,000 villages with no water – many of which have had to be abandoned. With modern technology aquifers are also being drastically overdrawn in the main agricultural sates in the USA – with water-tables sinking by 30 metres or more in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

The situation is still worse in China, where aquifers are being depleted so seriously that the wheat crop has fallen steadily over a period of four years by nearly 30 percent. As this problem worsens China will have to import its wheat, but where from? The same thing is happening with other wheat producing countries. The crisis is a global one.

Surface waters have been exploited in a similar matter. Abstraction of water for irrigation in the world’s main rivers, as in irrigation purposes is such that their flow is much reduced and many of them, such as the Colorado, no longer reach the sea, while further abstraction would have all sorts of adverse ecological effects. Large-scale irrigation schemes in hot countries are totally unsuitable in any case as reservoirs rapidly silt up – while the irrigated land is equally rapidly transformed into salt encrusted and often waterlogged desert. As a result many authorities on the subject consider that every year more irrigated land is taken out of production than brought into it.

The only really sustainable irrigation systems are the traditional ones that only use the interest from our capital of fresh water and not the capital itself, as do the modern irrigation systems, and that are not run by the State bureaucracy, still less by some corporation, but by the community itself whose livelihood and whose future depends on their effectiveness, reliability and sustainability – for example, the water harvesting systems that have been filling reservoirs and irrigating crops in Sri Lanka, India, Java, Palestine and elsewhere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Anil Agarwal and Sunity Narin, who have brilliantly documented the Indian water harvest experience, tell us that during the drought of 1987 in India, distant villages close to the Pakistan border, which had not yet ‘benefited’ from government water schemes, still provided water for people to drink for the simple reason that their traditional water harvesting systems had remained intact. In the ‘developed’ villages, on the other hand, people went thirsty, wells had either no water or no electricity for powering the pumps and the villages were forced to depend on occasional government tankers.

In 1994, in a drought stricken area in Maharatha visited by Vandana Shiva, 17,000 villages were without water. Since then local residents built water harvest systems and they are now growing crops worth £90,000 – £120,000 a year. In the Ahwas district of Nagas, water resources were being depleted extremely quickly, then serious drought struck from 1985 to 1988. The youth organization Tarun Bharat Sanjh mobilised people to rebuild the traditional systems that had fallen into disuse. Local communities raised the money and 2,800 tanks were built in 500 villages. Slowly water levels rose and at least 100 previously dead rivers came back to live.

In Gujarat where nearly 13,000 villages have no dependable source of water, women are taking the lead in creating water harvest systems. Such movements are springing up all over India. There is still hope.

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